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Inflation is injurious to exports

By       Message Mark Hazlitt     Permalink
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Prevailing practitioners of economics tell us that inflation stimulates exports. They get the flow of capital inverted. Otherwise, pray tell, why wouldn't Zimbabwe be the world's leading exporter? Inflation inflicts injury upon the manufacturing base, engendering capital outflow and the destruction of jobs.

Contrary to prevailing economic orthodoxy, inflation is not export-friendly. Inflation nurtures dependence upon cheaper foreign markets to supply us with production (i.e., begets capital outflow). Capital outflow can be reversed by compelling the Fed to tighten. If the Fed tightens, interest rates rise, prices collapse to reflect wages, the market clears (only then does the economic recovery begin), and dollars that have accumulated in foreign reserves will coming flowing back into the domestic loan market, thus lowering the natural rate of interest.

"The dollar rose against most major currencies on Thursday as a latest report showed U.S. trade deficit plunged in February," pursuant to one news source.[1]

"The contraction in the deficit came with a big recession-driven fall in imports and an unexpected rebound in exports, the Commerce Department said overnight in the US," pursuant to another news source.[2]

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In July of 2008, the dollar went through a rally -- albeit, a pseudo-rally -- marked by falling nominal prices. Although falling nominal prices is not deflation (i.e., the contraction of the money supply, which would be a healthy thing), that's the definition of deflation pursuant to prevailing orthodoxy. When the dollar rally began, the trade deficit declined, due to both decreasing imports and increasing exports. In other words: the fall in the trade deficit had been accompanied by a dollar rally. What prevailing economic orthodoxy teaches regarding the international cycle of trade betrays this possibility.

In November of 2007, Ben Bernanke put on an exhibition of his confusion when he said that inflation is inconsequential for everything but imports.[3] He literally said that dollar devaluation raises prices of everything not denominated in dollars! Apparently, Bernanke has been blinded by prevailing orthodoxy, which tells us that inflation mitigates a negative balance of trade -- another Keynesian apologia for inflation that needs to be buried.

On a peripheral note, Bernanke's argument runs slightly afoul of prevailing orthodoxy. Prevailing orthodoxy tells us that inflation does raise prices for Americans, and that this magically lowers real prices for foreigners. If Bernanke can't figure out that increasing the supply of dollars raises dollar-denominated prices, then the average person is hopeless for understanding the international cycle of trade and how capital flows.

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The decline in imports and rise in exports in juxtaposition with the short-lived dollar rally were not a fluke, nor is this inexplicable. The trade "deficit" is but a symptom of monetary policy. A trade "deficit" isn't bad per se. A trade "deficit" between two countries is no worse than a trade "deficit" between two towns. The consequential part is if the trade "deficit" is due to something other than comparative advantage (e.g., inflation).

"Again, suppose, that all the money of GREAT BRITAIN were multiplied fivefold in a night, must not the contrary effect follow? Must not all labour and commodities rise to such an exorbitant height, that no neighbouring nations could afford to buy from us; while their commodities, on the other hand, became comparatively so cheap, that, in spite of all the laws which could be formed, they would be run in upon us, and our money flow out; till we fall to a level with foreigners, and lose that great superiority of riches, which had laid us under such disadvantages?" --David Hume, Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary, 1752

What mainstream economists teach runs contrary to what David Hume taught us in 1752. Prevailing economic orthodoxy inverts the international cycle of trade. We are told that inflation mitigates the trade "deficit". By inflating the money supply, dollars will become less attractive to foreigners. Thus, runs the argument, foreigners will follow by curtailing exports to the U.S. Somehow, domestic productivity will magically be increased, stimulating exports.

The genesis of this error is begotten by the underlying macroeconomic assumptions. Rather than using microeconomic principles to understand macroeconomic phenomenon, mainstream economics fragments microeconomics and macroeconomics into separate compartments. Macroeconomics then becomes myopic, by lopping individuals out of its paradigm. Myopic macroeconomics doesn't consider individuals; it only considers aggregates.

Translated, the macroeconomic analysis is this: the country has dollars. If the country, or nation -- or whatever aggregate you wish to use -- decides to print more dollars, the country, or nation, isn't going to refuse to use its own dollars. However, the country, or nation, of, say, France, being a different country, won't like very much the devalued American dollar.

I guess we aren't supposed to ask why both inflation and the trade "deficit" have risen in juxtaposition with one another. Sound economics gives us that answer. If inflation did mitigate a trade "deficit", then one is boxed into the position of currency-devaluation wars. Inflation vs. counter-inflation vs. hyperinflation.

The economy is made up of individuals making choices in exchanges. When the government devalues the currency, this doesn't only make dollars less attractive to individuals abroad, but also to individuals right here at home. This is reflected with higher prices. It isn't about aggregates printing more money for use by aggregates.

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Consequently, inflationary stimulus interferes with the price mechanism preventing prices from falling to reflect wages. The market fails to clear, thus derailing an economic recovery. With mass unemployment, the last thing that will rise will be wages. The domestic cost of production goes up. Thus, to reduce costs, capital flight takes place. Inflation actually increases the dependence upon cheaper foreign markets to supply us with production.

As David Hume saliently articulated in 1752, inflation makes not only the currency less attractive abroad, but also the higher-priced goods. It also makes the higher-priced goods less attractive right here at home. Using inflation to remedy a trade "deficit" is akin to breaking a leg to make yourself more competitive.

The short-lived dollar rally in 2008 -- thanks to central bank policy -- was not the consequence of the declining trade deficit; it was the cause of the declining trade deficit. Everything denominated in dollars becomes cheaper. It shouldn't take a genius to figure out that one doesn't become more competitive by raising prices.

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Mark Hazlitt has been a long time peace activist. He despises neocon Republicans.


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